Paul Ehrlich was of course the Stanford scientist and
doomsayer who predicted early in the late 1960's that "the population
bomb" would soon result in global starvation. Ehrlich then famously made
and lost a bet with Julian Simon based on Ehrlich's predicted scenario
of resource scarcity.
George Will recalls in his
column today on the global warming scare:
Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford scientist
and environmental Cassandra who predicted calamitous food shortages
by 1990, accepted a bet with economist Julian Simon. When Ehrlich
predicted the imminent exhaustion of many nonrenewable natural
resources, Simon challenged him: Pick a "basket" of any five such
commodities, and I will wager that in a decade the price of the
basket will decline, indicating decreased scarcity. Ehrlich picked
five metals -- chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten -- that he
predicted would become more expensive. Not only did the price of the
basket decline, the price of all five
Will adds a footnote to this history:
An expert Ehrlich consulted in
picking the five was John Holdren, who today is President Obama's
science adviser. Credentialed intellectuals, too -- actually,
illustrate Montaigne's axiom: "Nothing is so firmly believed as what
we least know."
It is a shame that Will leaves the
story of Ehrlich's revenge at that. There is much more to the story. In
"Politicizing science," John
Hinderaker wrote about Holdren this past December, also recalling his
advisory role in the Simon-Ehrlich wager:
While nowhere near as famous as
Ehrlich, Holdren collaborated with him on two books and several
articles, and fully shared Ehrlich's pessimistic theories on the
future of the human race. In fact, as
John Tierney notes, Ehrlich
went to Holdren for advice on which commodities to choose for his
losing bet with Simon.
Consistent with these
preoccupations, Holdren postures himself today as an expert on
"sustainability." In 1995, he co-authored
article, titled "The Meaning of
Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects," with Ehrlich. Since Holdren
is listed as the principal author, it sheds significant light on his
alleged commitment to the "de-politicization of science."
Holdren begins by identifying the "ills that
development must address." It's a pretty plain-vanilla list:
poverty, war, oppression of human rights. Next, Holdren purports to
identify the "driving forces" behind these ills. This is where we
start to get political. First on the list is Ehrlich and Holdren's
old hobbyhorse, "excessive population growth," which is "a condition
now prevailing almost everywhere." Next comes "maldistribution," as
"between rich and investment poor" and "between military and
civilian forms of consumption and investment." (No one here but us
This is where Holdren can no longer keep his
left-wing politics under wraps. He identifies another "driving
force" behind humanity's ills: "Underlying human frailties: Greed,
selfishness, intolerance, and shortsightedness. Which collectively
have been elevated by conservative political doctrine and practice
(above all in the United States in 1980-92) to the status of a
There you have it! This is the man upon whom
Barack Obama is counting to "ensur[e] that facts and evidence are
never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology."
Will frames his column with recollection of the
hysteria about global cooling peddled by elite opinion in the early
1970's. Will collects a number of illuminating quotes on the subject
from the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others. It's
a shame he missed the lament of one of the newsmagazines that we might
fail to adopt the obvious remedy of trapping heat by painting the
While Holdren did not have a hand in the global
cooling hysteria, in his 1986 book The
Machinery of Nature
Ehrlich credited Holdren for
the proposition that global warming would cause the deaths of a billion
people by 2020. Whatever the case -- global cooling or global warming --
paint it black!
JOHN adds: Holdren's confirmation hearing was last
week. It was basically a love-fest, and Holdren avoided any reference to
his hysterical and partisan past. But Senator Vitter played the role of
garden party skunk by asking Holdren about some of his embarrassingly
radical moments. Holdren's back-pedaling was amusing:
Dr. Holdren, one of the lines from the president's
inaugural address which I most appreciated was his comment about
science and honoring that and not having it overtaken by ideology.
My concern is that as one of his top science
advisers, many statements you've made in the past don't meet that
task, and so I wanted to explore that.
One is from an 1971 article with Paul Ehrlich,
titled "Global Ecology," in which you predicted that, quote, "some
form of eco-catastrophe, if not thermal nuclear war, seems almost
certain to overtake us before the end of the century," close quote.
Do you think that was a responsible prediction?
HOLDREN: Well, thank you, Senator, for that -- for
First of all, I guess I would say that one of the
things I've learned in the -- in the intervening nearly four decades
is that predictions about the future are difficult.
That was a statement, which at least at the age of
26, I had the good sense to hedge by saying, "almost certain." The
trends at the time were not positive, either with respect to the
dangers of thermal nuclear war or with respect to ecological dangers
of a wide variety of sorts. A lot of things were getting worse. ...
VITTER: Given all that context, do you think that
was a responsible prediction at the time?
HOLDREN: Senator, I -- with respect, I would
want to distinguish between predictions and a description of
possibilities which we would like to avert. And I think it is
responsible to call attention to the dangers that society faces, so
we'll make the investments and make the changes needed to reduce
those dangers. [Ed.: What Holdren is
saying here is that, like Al Gore, he thinks it's OK to misrepresent
scientific data--"almost certain"--in order to alarm the public into
doing what he wants anyway, regardless of the science, i.e., turn
control of the economy over to the government.]
VITTER: Well, I would call, quote "seems almost
certain," close quote, a prediction. But that's just a difference of
What -- specifically, what science was that
prediction based on?
HOLDREN: Well, it was based, in the -- in the
ecological domain, on a lot of science, on the evidence of the
accumulation of persistent toxic substances in the body fat of
organisms all around the planet, on the rise of the atmospheric
concentrations of carbon dioxide, of sulfur oxides, of particulate
matter, on trace metals accumulating in various parts of the
environment in large quantities, the destruction of tropical forests
at a great rate...
VITTER: Is all of that dramatically reversed, so
that this "almost certainty" has obviously been averted?
HOLDREN: Some of it has reversed, and I'm grateful
for that. ... We continue to be on a perilous path with respect to
climate change, and I think we need to do more work to get that one
reversed as well.
VITTER: OK. Another statement in 1986, you
predicted that global warming could cause the deaths of 1 billion
people by 2020. Would you stick to that statement today?
HOLDREN: Well again, I wouldn't have called it a
prediction then, and I wouldn't call it a prediction now. I think it
is unlikely to happen, but it is...
VITTER: Do you think it could happen?
HOLDREN: I think it could happen. And the way it
could happen is climate crosses a tipping point in which a
catastrophic degree of climate change has severe impacts on global
agriculture. A lot of people...
HOLDREN: ...depend on that. I don't think
it's likely. I think we should invest effort -- considerable effort
-- to reduce the likelihood further.
VITTER: But you would stick to the statement that
it could happen by 2020?
HOLDREN: It could happen.
VITTER: 1 billion by 2020? OK.
HOLDREN: It could.
That's ridiculous, of course. 2020 is a mere eleven
years away, the earth is getting cooler, not warmer, and there is no
responsible science that suggests the climate could change--getting
either colder or warmer--over the next eleven years so as to kill
one-sixth of the world's population.
VITTER: In 1973, you encouraged a, quote, "decline
in fertility to well below replacement," close quote, in the United
States, because, quote, "280 million in 2040 is likely to be too
many," close quote. What would your number for the right
population in the U.S. be today?
HOLDREN: I no longer think it's productive,
Senator, to focus on the optimum population for the United States. I
don't think any of us know what the right answer is.
When I wrote those lines in 1973, I was
preoccupied with the fact that many problems the United States faced
appeared to be being made more difficult by the rate of population
growth that then prevailed. ...
VITTER: Well, since we're at 304 million, I'm
certainly heartened that you're not sticking to the 280 million
figure. But much more recently, namely a couple of weeks ago
in response to my written questions, you did say on this matter,
quote, "balancing costs and benefits of population growth is a
complex business, of course, and reasonable people can disagree
about where it comes out."
I'll be quite honest with you. I'm not concerned
about where you or I might come out, I'm scared to death that you
think this is a proper function of government, which is what that
sentence clearly implies.
Do you think determining optimal population is a
proper role of government?
HOLDREN: No, Senator, I do not. And I did not
certainly intend that to be the implication of that sentence. The
sentence means only what it says, which is, that people who've
thought about these matters come out in different places. ...
VITTER: Final question: In 2006, obviously pretty
recently, in an article, "The War on Hot Air," you suggested that
global sea levels could rise by 13 feet by the end of this century.
And in contrast to that, the IPCC's 2007 report
put their estimate at between 7 and 25 inches. So their top line was
25 inches, about 2 feet.
What explains the disparity?
HOLDREN: ... My statement was based on
articles in the journals Science and Nature, peer reviewed
publications by some of the world's leading specialists in studying
ice, who had concluded that twice in the last 19,000 years, in
natural warming periods of similar pace to the warming period that
we're experiencing now, in large part because of human activities [Ed.:
It would have been nice to see some follow-up on this admission.],
sea level went up by as much as 2 to 5 meters per century.
VITTER: The bottom line: Do you think the better
worst-case estimate is 25 inches or 13 feet?
HOLDREN: The newer analyses that have been done
since the IPCC report came out, indicate that the upper limit for
the year 2100 is probably between 1 and 2 meters, and those are the
numbers that I now quote, because they are the latest science.
But for Vitter's participation, Holdren's confirmation
hearing would have been pretty much worthless.